Celtics Journal: Game 9 of 82, Mon 11/17, Suns @ Celtics (Scheduled Losses)

Game 9 of 82 (11%), Monday, November 17, 430pm PST

Suns @ Celtics

The Phoenix Suns won 48 games last year. They didn’t make the playoffs. They play in the Western Conference. The Western Conference is really good. The Boston Celtics won 25 games last year. With a healthy Rajon Rondo, and a more athletic (yet deeply flawed) roster, this year’s Celtics will win more than 25 games. How many more? We will find out in time. Probably about 10 more games. Somewhere in the 35-win range. Maybe a few more. Maybe a few less. Of course, it depends on how GM Danny Ainge deals (or doesn’t deal) with the trade deadline. Yet, the number is less important than the fact that the Suns are a better team. This doesn’t mean that they would win every game they play against the Celtics, but it does mean that when the Celtics lose to a team like Phoenix, it isn’t all that surprising.

Scheduling

After 9 games, the Celtics have played the 12th most difficult schedule in the NBA (courtesy of teamrankings.com). Of Eastern Conference teams (who will all play significantly easier schedules this season due to the fact that 50 of the 82 are in-conference), only Philadelphia and Charlotte have played tougher schedules in the early going.  Of the team’s six losses, they have managed to lose in some brutal ways, and they’ve kept nearly all the losses close. They’ve lost by the smallest margins (5 points, 4 points, 2 points, and against Cleveland, by a single point.) Six of their last seven games have been decided by 5 points or less. So…to put it simply: all is not lost, despite all the losses.

Every game is it’s own story. The story of this game for Phoenix was penetration and passing, which lead to 30 assists, and also lead to Markieff Morris’ career-high (30 points on 14 of 21 shots). The story of the 4th quarter was Eric Bledsoe’s physical defense (two steals and numerous harassments). Bledsoe’s attacking play is one more reminder that the Celtics can be a different defensive team with Marcus Smart. Right now, the Celtics lack any physical presence.

Oh No, Olynyk and Ron-doh! Free-Throw

For the Celtics, the story of the game was Kelly Olynyk’s career-low point.

Olynyk’s line: 13 min; negative 15 (+/-); 4 fouls; 3 turnovers, and 0 points on two attempts).

It was also the free-throw shooting of Rajon Rondo.

Rondo took 10 free-throws. In the first half, he split a pair on two separate occasions. Toward the end of the 3rd quarter, he missed both with 2:25 remaining, and then failed to convert a three-point play after sinking a driving lay-up. The third quarter misses were particularly painful as the Celtics trailed by 1-point (89-88) at the end of three. With 2.6 seconds remaining in the game and the Celtics already down 4, Rondo had three attempts. The first two clanged off the rim. Two of 10. Free-throws quite costly.

Rondo has never been a good free-throw shooter. 61.6% for his career. The man with abnormally large hands has struggled with the deft touch required of free-throw shooting. Missing the preseason has probably impacted Rondo’s conditioning. He doesn’t seem at all out of shape, but the team is pushing the pace whenever he’s on the court, and the all-out attack is no doubt impacting his defense and his free-throws. You don’t see it when he’s whizzing around the court, setting up teammates with passes. Free-throws can come down to legs. Its why team’s often end practices with free-throws. You have to hit them when you’re most tired.

The Celtics did many things right in this game. Rondo has found Tyler Zeller’s strength (running the floor) and Zeller finished the night shooting 8 of 9 (mostly within 5 feet) for 17 points. Jeff Green is getting the ball in good spots, and attacking the rim. Green finished with 28 points on 17 attempts, adding 3 steals and 2 blocked shots.

And yet, the Celtics lost another close game. Suns 118, Celtics 114.

Future Opponents

The schedule provides one brief respite (@ Philadelphia on Wednesday), before the Celtics see four more high-quality opponents to end the month. Memphis, Portland, Chicago and San Antonio. On the other hand, the December slate provides Eastern Conference opponents. With games against the Magic, Pistons, injured Wolves (no Rubio for now), and a highly anticipated Lakers match-up (not exactly the 2010 NBA Finals), the schedule eventually balances out and then tilts in our favor, as fans of an Eastern Conference team.

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Celtics Journal: Game 8 of 82, Fri 11/14, Cavs @ Celtics (Existential Losses)

Game 8 of 82, Friday, November 14, 430pm PST

Cavs @ Celtics

I was fast when I was little. Faster than most of my friends. Faster than most of my classmates. Faster than my older brother. Fast because of my older brother. We would irritate each other. I would push him over the edge and then I would bolt. There were times he would catch me, but I was small, and low to the ground, and full of fakes.

At the end of every school year, our entire grade (about 50 kids) participated in a “Race around the park.” The race was one 200-250 yard loop around a field. Everyone ran as fast as they could for the first 100 feet. By the halfway point, some kids had given up. Some started walking. Some wandered off. Some fell over and gasped. By the last turn, there were usually 4-6 of us in the front. As my lungs began to burn, and as each stride became a struggle, the pace slowed. Unlike Usain Bolt, nobody had a strong “kick,” We were all getting kicked. The pace was always unsustainable. The winner — sometimes Bobby, sometimes me, one time the new kid, Chris, would be the boy who could barely hang on to a moderate jog.

These days, I don’t run. Since we joined a fitness center near our new place, I’ve been using an arc trainer. It’s a good workout, definitely feels good to be getting my blood pumping again. Building up stamina takes time. I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be, physically. I haven’t played basketball or tennis much in the last several years. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem impossible to get myself back to a place where I can still run, for at least a few minutes, without gasping like an injured seal.

The Celtics simply ran out of steam again on Friday. Facing the reborn Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, they sprinted to a 31-22 1st quarter lead. As has been the case for several early-season games, the lead dissolved quickly. The halftime score: Celtics 59, Cavs 59. Both teams have struggled on the defensive end. One effect of pushing the pace has been the resulting lack of energy of the other side of the ball. Some of the defensive struggles are inevitable. The Celtics have been playing Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger at the same time. They have zero rim protection and opposing teams are finishing at the rim without much worry. The Celtics built the early lead by maintaining their offensive strategy of rapid ball movement.

The third quarter was a thing of beauty for the Celtics, Brad Stevens and the fans. 42 points. 14 assists on 16 field goals. Only 1 turnover. Rajon Rondo’s playmaking was wondrous, leading to 9 of the 16 makes. Sullinger, Olynyk, Green and Turner all connected on 3 or more shots. The Cavs defense was abysmal. Boston started the 4th quarter with a 101-84 lead. Only the most skeptical Celtics fan could have expected the 4th quarter to unravel as it did. It’s not that the Celtics are so good that they should ever be ahead by 17 points against a team that may eventually discover a sense of cohesion and become a legitimate championship contender. Clearly the Cavs are a work-in-progress (much like the Celtics). However, their potential with LeBron and Love make them a heavily scrutinized work-in-progress. So…a 17-point lead with 12 minutes remaining. Was it safe? No. No lead is safe with this Celtics team. Dangerous leads only.

Think of each game like a wide expanse of sky, filled with pockets of bright sun, and then quickly arriving thunderclouds. Rain comes and goes in flashes. The sky never stays the same. This is the reality of the 2014-15 Boston Celtics. We are conditioned to remain aware of the score. We are conditioned to focus on winning and losing. It gives each game a meaning. Stakes. The place in the standings. And yet, it won’t help you this year. What will help you is to remain aware of the fact that the sky is forever changing.

Kyrie Irving will be in the spotlight all season. The Cavs may or may not make the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Cleveland fans who are expecting the NBA Finals this year may be overzealous. Chemistry doesn’t build overnight. Look at the San Antonio Spurs and consider the decades of familiarity they’ve spent learning each other’s games.

Kyrie Irving trimmed the 17-point (mostly imaginary) cushion down to 10 with three straight triples. 9:47 remained on the clock. 105-95. At the 7-minute mark, Jeff Green countered with a 25-footer of his own. The lead was back to 12, 114-102.  Six straight points to Cleveland. A few Green misses. A Bradley turnover.

With 2:29 on the clock, and the lead whittled down to 3, Rondo made a twisting lay-up. Celtics 118, Cavs 113. The scoreboard should have read: Celtics undefined, Cavs gaining.

LeBron went on to score the next 8 points.

The Celtics had possession of the ball with 7 seconds left, trailing by one point.

Any attempt at a play was impossible to discern. Rondo dribbled, mishandled, dribbled and faked. The clock expired. No shot attempted. No sunshine in sight. An existential kind of loss.

Game 8 of 82.

This will be an existential kind of season for Boston. Much more interesting than blowing every team out and waiting until April to be tested. Every game is a test for the Celtics and their fans.

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Celtics Journal: Game 7 of 82, Wed 11/12, Thunder @ Celtics (Sriracha Mayo)

Game 7 of 82, Wednesday, November 12, 430 PST

Thunder @ Celtics

Sriracha mayo. It’s delicious. Spicy and creamy. Boil some chicken. Toss in some garlic and onion powder. A pinch of dill. Lemon juice. You’ve made yourself a spicy chicken salad. The Celtics offense is Sriracha mayo. It’s flexible. It works in many situations. It comes out easy and helps build big leads. Hmm. Builds big leads and sandwiches?

sriracha-mayo

Sadly, those leads often appear as figments of the imagination. They evaporate all too easily. The baskets come without effort. Swish after swish. With three minutes left in the first quarter, the starters begin to take their rests and before you know it, the lead dissolves. You’re left with the sound of the mayo bottle when it’s nearing its end (plastic fart).

Fans start asking themselves if they missed something. Weren’t they up 15 after eight minutes? Go to the bathroom or forget to pause the game when grabbing something from the kitchen and you may miss a 10-point swing. The offense is Sriracha mayo. The defense is old milk. Milk that you don’t even want to pour down the drain, for fear of the aroma coming up from the pipes.

Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow are back in the lineup for Oklahoma City after early season absences. No Kevin Durant. No Russell Westbrook. Not a problem when point guard (and former Boston College star) Reggie Jackson is making people forget about the 1970′s outfielder who played for the Yankees and Athletics. Jackson splashed through that old milk for 28 easy points on 15 shot attempts. Reggie added 8 assists and lost the ball only once. He was the best player on the floor not named Rajon. Then there’s sweet-shooting Anthony Morrow, who may very well win a playoff game for these Thunder if they can squeeze into the bottom of the West’s playoff bracket in April. Like Memphis last year, the Thunder will be a ridiculously dangerous 7th or 8th seed if they can string together enough wins in the first 30 games. Morrow poured in 28 on 16 attempts.

Where was the perimeter defense? Brad Stevens missed rookie Marcus Smart last night. The new hand-check rules are a problem for Avery Bradley. Hopefully the referees stop over-emphasizing that “point of emphasis” soon.

Rondo for Naught

‘Tis a damn shame the Celtics keep wasting these scintillating performances from Rondo. Against OKC, Rondo once again contributed artistry, wisdom, genius and several sets of fireworks. He even connected on 4 of 7 from distance.

Rondo’s line: 20 pts, 12 ast, 9 reb, 2 stl, and only 2 turnovers.

Boston beat OKC by one point over the course of Rondo’s 36 minutes played. Unfortunately, Rondo cannot play all 48 minutes. These kinds of games should make any doubtful Celtics fans question their doubts. What we have in Rondo is what we will not find in any other point guard. A pass-first dynamo who is as good at rebounding as he is on the pick-and-roll. Stop listening to those who don’t appreciate Rondo. He’ll be worth every cent of whatever he gets next summer. He’s pure entertainment as well as substance. Any writer who claims he’s a “head case,” is mentally deficient. What he may be, at times, is ornery. Like most intelligent and highly-skilled athletes, he may not always listen well (remember Larry Bird?). However, he seems to be developing some solid chemistry with Stevens.

In Defense of Perk

Kendrick Perkins is an easy target for forgetful fans. From 2007-2012, Perk was an essential component of several championship-contending teams. First with the Celtics and then with OKC, Perkins thwarted the best big men in the game. Dwight Howard and Orlando. Bynum in the 2010 Finals with the Lakers. Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the 2011 West Finals. Zach Randolph and his elbows in Memphis. Of course, Perkins’ game has not aged well.

Never the most graceful athlete, Kendrick’s sheer strength and girth combined with intelligent positioning and extended arms have allowed him to frustrate opposing centers in the paint for over a decade. Everything Perkins does well is hard to quantify. Absorbing contact with his tree trunk legs and broad, bruising shoulders. Deflecting shots and blocking passing lanes with his extendo-arms. Interior positioning. That mean streak, highlighted by his infamous scowl. By contrast, consider Kelly Olynyk’s presence in the paint. Olynyk (minus 13 in this one) has been great on the offensive side this year, showcasing improved range and creative passing…but he gives so much back on the defensive end. To be fair, he’s playing out of position when paired with Sullinger. Olynyk is not a center, and never will be. He’s a power forward who needs a Kendrick Perkins by his side.

Everything Perkins doesn’t do well is easy to quantify. He never had anything resembling a mid-range shot. He takes hours to prepare himself before releasing a 10-footer. He has trouble catching the ball to begin with. In his early days with the Celtics, he insisted on bringing the ball down before going up to dunk, which resulted in all kinds of badness. He doesn’t pass well. Since the knee problems became chronic, he can barely move up and down the court.

NBA Twitter loves to abuse Perkins for all of the above reasons. He’s the easy target. His lumbering gait is magnified by the aesthetically-pleasing athletes that surround him in OKC. Watching him run next to Ibaka, Durant, Jackson and the high-speed train that is Russell Westbrook, Perkins looks like he’s drowning in mud.

Let’s give Perk some praise for all of his work during those playoff years from 2007-2010. He may not be easy to watch now, and he may not have always been easy to watch then, but he was absolutely necessary, scowl and all.

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